Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Porous borders

Bedouin tribes disagree over the military decree banning the ownership of land close to Egypt’s eastern border, Amirah Ibrahim reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Decree 203, issued by Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi two weeks ago, restricts ownership of land and real estate in Sinai to Egyptian citizens, with the added condition that the owner also be the child of two Egyptian citizens.
The decree’s four items regulate not only land ownership and rentals but also businesses operating in the peninsula. It effectively ends the 99-year leases foreigners were able to obtain in Sinai which had been introduced by the Mubarak regime.
The new rules have met with a mixed reaction from Sinai’s Bedouins, not least because it raises question marks about the ownership of property already built on land long assumed to belong to particular tribes. For the inhabitants of lands along the border with Gaza the situation is worse, since a 5km corridor has been excluded from the regulations. Apart from the town of Rafah, no property in the border area can be owned.
“This is just another unfair measure, an example of the discrimination that as Bedouins we have come to expect from central government,” says Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Menei, the coordinator of the Coalition of Sinai Tribes and a member of the Esawrka clan.
On Saturday 207 sheikhs from the peninsula met with senior army officers — including the commander of the Second Army — in Cairo. The five-hour meeting was also attended by the directors of Military Intelligence and the Military Planning Authority, and was presided over, in parts, by Al-Sisi.
An official military statement hailed the meeting as a success, claiming tribal leaders had accepted the army’s promises that the decree would not impact on traditional tribal lands.
“I am here to assure every one of you that no one will be affected by the decree, no one,” Al-Sisi told the Bedouin participants over lunch. Other officers stressed that anyone affected would receive fair compensation.
Such reassurances have failed to convince Al-Menei, and he is far from being alone.
“These lands are ours. We used to plant watermelon in summer, malt and wheat in winter. Why are Sinai citizens deprived of the right to possess their land? Why are they not treated on an equal footing with farmers in the Nile Valley?
Al-Menei dismissed the suggestion that “fair compensation” would be offered.
“We have protected these lands for hundreds of years. We have never handed over a single inch and we never will,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “They — the government — have to reconsider the decree and revise it. Otherwise it will be resisted. We are a ticking time bomb.”
Bedouin tribes reject the army’s argument that it needs exclusive access to the border corridor with Gaza to guarantee security.
“Five months ago Mossad agents penetrated 30km into Sinai and carried out operations against the army which failed to catch them. Had the area been more densely inhabited with farms and other homes this wouldn’t have happened,” says Al-Menei.
In August 2012 Egypt launched a major military operation in Sinai against suspected terror cells following an attack in which 16 army soldiers were killed at a border post. Yet arms smuggling, and sporadic attacks on the police and army units, have continued.
On Monday the military claimed to have aborted an attempt to bomb a church along the Egypt-Gaza border.
“Army units observed two private cars parking an hour after midnight in the area between a military checkpoint and Rafah church. Troops captured one of the two cars which was packed with explosives, bullet casings and a rocket-propelled grenade,” said a military statement.
Al-Menei accuses the government of requisitioning border land so President Mohamed Morsi can make good on recent promises to install security sensors along the border.
“Morsi’s regime helps Israelis secure themselves at the expense of the rights of Sinai Bedouins. This is the truth known to every Bedouin in Sinai,” he says.
According to Sinai activist Musaad Abu Fagr, there is a state of “absolute mistrust” between Sinai’s inhabitants and the military establishment.
“This is the same army that handed the country to an untrustworthy group simply because its commanders were able to cut a deal that left their privileges and wealth intact,” Abu Fagr told the Weekly.
“We cannot view this decree out of context. The army sold the revolution to the Islamists. How can we guarantee that it will not sell out the people of Sinai?”
“It is possible that Muslim Brotherhood leaders involved in business in Sinai alongside their Hamas associates are behind the decree. It is no different to what happened under Mubarak, when ruling party business cronies dictated policies tailored to guarantee they made enormous profits.”
The border exclusion zone, says Abu Fagr, is inhabited by dozens of families who will never allow the army to take over their land. He points out that “of the 31 families that comprise the Al-Rumaylat tribe in North Sinai 25 live within the five kilometres the army wants.”
Sheikh Abdallah Juhama, newly elected secretary of the General Coalition of Egypt’s Arab Tribes, insists the “decree corrects a mistake made by consecutive governments over decades”.
“Long neglect by the central government has resulted in deteriorating social conditions, poor services and growing poverty, all of which have fed the current state of security unrest,” says Juhama.
He refuses suggestions that the decree is discriminatory against Sinai Bedouin.
“This is nonsense. The decree recognises all the rights of people living in the corridor. It protects all farms, houses and lands that they possessed up to 2010.”
He questions the motives of those opposed to the decree.
“These are families that are heavily involved in cross-border smuggling and they do not want the lucrative trade disrupted.”
In August 2011 a cross-border raid resulted in Israeli troops killing several attackers along with three Egyptian soldiers. The soldiers’ deaths caused a diplomatic crisis which ended with an official Israeli apology.
“One of the reasons why the army must assume control of land close to the border is to prevent such incidents,” comments Juhama.
On Friday the army released a statement saying it had seized missiles and anti-tank rockets in Sinai. The arms, discovered in a warehouse in Arish, included six US made missiles thought to have been smuggled into Sinai from Libya and eventually destined for Gaza.
In December Egyptian security forces captured 17 French-made rockets on their way to Gaza.
Sheikh Hassan Khalaf warns that confused political management of the ongoing crisis in the peninsula threatens Sinai’s future.
“The army is tied to the peace treaty while Egypt’s current political leadership has dragged Sinai into confusion. If the political struggle goes on the military must have the final word,” Khalaf told the Weekly.
Khalaf believes attracting more people to Sinai constitutes the most effective insurance for security on Egypt’s Eastern border.  
“We must also attract investors and promote development projects. Those who threaten to fight against the army are doing for the benefit of Egypt’s enemies. They will have to fight the majority of Sinai tribes because all of us will take the side of the army,” says Khalaf.

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